Magazine article USA TODAY

Dating as If It Were Driver's Ed

Magazine article USA TODAY

Dating as If It Were Driver's Ed

Article excerpt

"Buckle up, parents. It is the law of attraction. Safe teen dating does not happen by accident."

"SO, WHAT MOVIE do you think I should take Emily to see?" I was sitting in the passenger seat next to my 16-year-old son while he practiced his parallel parking, hoping he would not hit anything. His question made me grip the armrest just a little bit tighter. My head was spinning and my heart was racing trying to block out the image of what "parking" meant for teens when I was in high school. How in the world was I going to prepare him for dating with no manual, instructor, or parental supervision? Just like driving, dating invites a very skewed notion of freedom if not approached with a solid set of guidelines.

Millions of parents watch like deer in the headlights as their kids accelerate into the teen dating years without a map and find themselves in the midst of a crisis: teen sex and pregnancy; couples drinking and doing drugs; dating violence and abuse; plus stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Just sit on the beach during spring break or chaperone a school dance: the boundary lines are blurry at best and fading fast. Teen dating is not what it used to be; our culture and social media have changed the course of teen relationships forever.

Despite every effort to educate teens about the dangers associated with unhealthy choices, statistics indicate that the information may be falling on deaf ears (or maybe an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex). The inconsistent delivery of information on topics such as sex and drugs are proving to be less than effective compared to the cultural pressures that every teen faces. In addition, budget restrictions, limited access to resources, and negative or nonexistent parental influence can become roadblocks to the essential help and guidance teenagers need. Consequently, we have become a reactive society, throwing sandbags against the tide of influence where teens already are in way over their heads.

So, where is the hope for this generation and what are we teaching them about relationships? The reality is that only 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in public schools when more than 47% of high school students already have had sex, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Conflicting messages about whether to have protected sex, or none at all, present choices that require a degree of logic and long-term planning that many teens do not possess. Without a proper foundation and ongoing support, teens are left to let their emotions drive them in the heat of the moment, which can result in life-altering consequences. Add social media and mass distribution of smart phones to the equation, and young people are on a collision course with visual imagery that heightens the senses and could make it much easier for them to get into trouble. The signs are there and the culture is paving the way.

With a stream of violent input from the world around them, teen brains also are being rewired and desensitized to the shock of abuse. The CDC provides education on dating violence and abuse through a program called "Dating Matters" in four high-risk communities in the country, and surveys show that one in 10 teenagers report experiencing abuse within the past 12 months. Hundreds of localized courses, along with a dozen national organizations, have made huge strides to squash bullying in an effort to minimize dating violence and abuse. Creative programs are introduced in schools during pep assemblies to encourage kindness and respect, as well as raise awareness of physical boundaries.

Dating under the influence also includes the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Thrill-seeking teens are bored with traditional highs and lured into experimentation fueled by concoctions such as "Molly" and "Spice," as well as a new drinking game called NekNominate. Trying to stay ahead of the trend is a full-time job for most parents and educators who simply do not have the time nor information to steer teens away from the latest dangers. …

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